Critical Takes: Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books, by Jean-Paul Gabilliet

By Derek Royal

In 2010, the University Press of Mississippi published a hardcover edition of Jean-Paul Gabilliet’s Of Comics and Men: A Cultural History of American Comic Books. At a cost of $55.00 — which is more or less consistent with similar texts published by university presses — this book might have been a little out of the price range of most general readers, as well as too costly for classroom use. This was a shame, in that Gabilliet’s text is an informative and highly accessible introduction to the medium and its history. But earlier this year, Mississippi published a more affordable paperback edition of the book, one that should find its way into the hands of a broader audience…and deservedly so.

Gabilliet’s text was originally published in 2005 as Des Comics et des hommes: Histoire culturelle des comic books aux Etats-Unis, and then translated for English-speaking audiences by Bart Beaty and Nick Nguyen. These are the same translators of another notable French study, Thierry Groensteen’s The System of Comics (2007), and their work on Gabrillet’s text probably contribute to its readability. Of Comics and Men is divided into three Gabillietmain sections of relatively equal length. The first, “Seventy Years’ Worth of Images,” provides a historical overview of American comics, and it is a useful resource to anyone, student or casual reader, wanting to familiarize him/herself with the medium. It’s important to note that Gabilliet takes pains to limit his analysis to works published in the United States, and he does so given his primary focus on comic books themselves. And to some degree, Gabilliet has an expansive definition of these forms of delivery, as in his introduction he states, “Graphic novels are the comics books of the twenty-first century” (xix). What this focus does is to allow him to limit his scope to a specific and graspable mode of cultural production, while at the same time avoiding the quagmire of trying to trace the medium’s genealogy. He acknowledges such progenitors as Rodolphe Töpffer and early Puritan-era children’s books, but Gabilliet’s cultural history really gets going with the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with the rise of pulps, newspaper strips, and subsequent comic magazines. The first section highlights the beginnings of the industry in the late 1930s, moves on to the rise and fall of the comic book in the immediate post-war years, follows its various permutations against the backdrop of the 1960s and 1970s, and then demonstrates how economic shifts such as the direct market and the privileging of graphic novels (or trades) have shaped comics from the 1980s to today. If you’re looking for a concise and readable survey of American comic books, this is it.

The next two sections go on to enhance this cultural history, but does so from different vantage points. The second part, “Producers and Consumers,” approaches American comics as a business and as a consumable product. Gabilliet provides an overview of comic-book production, from the studio system to freelancing contracts and into the current business environment. His survey of distribution systems is particularly significant, and his discussion of creator practices and reader characteristics complement his earlier history. It is worth noting that here and elsewhere throughout the book, Gabilliet relies on a variety of hard data — production numbers, sales figures, market shares, and biographic statistics — that firmly anchors his analysis. His nuanced and, at times, cautious reading of those statistics and trends, often qualifying or contracting commonly held assumptions, is perhaps one of the book’s greatest strengths. In places he inserts the necessary backdrops of ethnicity, gender, socio-economics, regionalism, and politics. Overall, Gabilliet’s discerning analysis makes Of Comics and Man one of the most judicious pop cultural histories available. 

He ends the book with a discussion on the legitimization of comics.  The third section, “A Difficult Consecration,” begins with a survey of censorship battles that American comic books have had to face, and then moves on to look at both the internal (within the industry) and external (larger cultural acceptance) mechanisms underlying visibility, recognition, and cultural legitimacy.  Here he focuses on the significance of awards, fandom, and specialty publications, as well as the ways that the medium has been appropriated by other media (the art world, advertising, popular films, etc.) and academia. Regarding the latter, Gabilliet resists the claim that comics studies has successfully made it into the academy — a curious stance, given the primary intended audience (I assume) of his study. He argues that scholars who devote their work to comics are doubly marginalized by the “field of comics” (and by this I take it that he means the industry as well as the fans/readers) and their departments of specialization (such as communications, art, or English). “It is impossible,” he concludes, “to affirm that a strong intellectual field has been erected that constitutes … ‘comics studies’ as a field of knowledge within normal scholastic and academic institutional frameworks, constituting a ‘pure’ specialization that could lead to the formation of departments, or even programs within multidisciplinary departments” (305-06). One wonders here if maybe Gabilliet is a little bit behind the times (a condition linked to his literally being outside of the U.S. educational context), or if his aforementioned powers of cultural discernment are more acute than otherwise. Regardless, Of Comics and Men is a fascinating cultural history that deserves a broad readership, at least broader than most university press books usually receive. What’s more, with its survey approach and its multifaceted perspectives, it is the kind of text that would find a welcome home in a variety of college syllabi.

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